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At Taste of Lebanon in West Springfield, special dinners are served each night during Ramadan

  • Mahmoud Jnaed, a cook at Taste of Lebanon works the grill. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • A variety of Mediterranean foods, including housemade hummus, chicken, and lamb at Taste of Lebanon. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Chef and Taste of Lebanon co-owner Nisrine Akwal pours Turkish coffee. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Asiya Colgar prepares mouajanat, a traditional Lebanese pastry. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Taste of Lebanon is located on Main Street in West Springfield. At right, shawarma, which is a popular street food in the Mideast is made at the restaurant. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Shawarma, which is a popular street food in the Mideast, at Taste of Lebanon in West Springfieldthen GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Mana'eesh is a specialty at Taste of Lebanon in West Springfield. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO



@AndyCCastillo
Sunday, June 03, 2018

A paste of salty herbs mixed with olive oil and lemon juice drips from doughy bread as Chef Nisrine Awkal of Taste of Lebanon in West Springfield tears apart mana’eesh, a traditional Mediterranean breakfast sandwich.

“It’s a bunch of herbs like thyme and sumac that people gather, dry, mix with oil, and spread,” she said of the recipe that’s popular in her native Lebanon. “People wrap it, put veggies in it, and take it to work. Moms send it with kids to school.”

She rips off another chunk but doesn’t eat it, and won’t until after 8 p.m. when she breaks her Ramadan fasting observance.

As a Muslim, Nisrine Awkal, who emigrated to western Massachusetts from Lebanon 20 years ago, doesn’t eat or drink between sunrise and sunset for the month-long duration of Ramadan, a time of fasting in commemoration of the first revelation of the Quran, the Islamic sacred book, to Muhammad.

This year, Ramadan began May 15 and lasts until June 13.

Traditionally, Muslims eat dates and almonds at night to break their fast because of the amount of sugar and proteins they have combined, said Mahar Awkal, Nisrine Awkal’s husband and co-owner of the restaurant. He maintains the building and helps with cooking.

“A big part of Ramadan is the spiritual part — you’re training, and giving up bad habits — it’s a month of Quran. You’re supposed to recite (the Quran) a lot,” Mahar Awkal said.

During that time, while working in the eatery’s small kitchen, Nisrine and Mahar Awkal resist mana’eesh and other tantalizing Mediterranean dishes like French fry sandwiches, lamebajin, faulofl, savory kebabs and shawarma, a wrap with meat that’s grilled on a spit, similar to the street food Nisrine enjoyed while growing up in Beirut.

From pita wraps made with homemade hummus to lamb, beef and chicken kabobs, everything on Taste of Lebanon’s menu is halal, that is, made according to Muslim law. Nisrine shoulders the bulk of prep work because she’s particular about how the food tastes.

“We use a lot of fresh herbs and dry herbs. We use a lot of garlic and a lot of lemon juice. Anything earthy, we love the flavor,” she said, seated at a dining booth just outside the kitchen. While she talked, a steady stream of lunch hour customers ducked in to pick up take out orders at the Main Street restaurant.

During Ramadan, between parenting and running the restaurant, Nisrine estimates she goes to sleep around midnight, wakes up at 2:30 a.m. to make food for her five children — two girls and three boys, ranging from 20 to 15 months old — before dawn, and then goes to the restaurant and begins her day. There, she and her half-dozen cooks intend to create a unique dinner every night through the end of the month for Muslims to break their daily fasting. The dishes are designed to provide protein and sugar to replenish their energy. On Friday, the special dish was a plate of mixed vegetables and meat — a mix of lamb, beef and chicken — served with rice. Fruit cups, smoothies, and ice cream is also available.

Starting from scratch

Nisrine, who came to the United States in 1997 at the age of 21, opened the restaurant four years ago with Mahar, who moved here from Lebanon in 1986 at 14. He studied engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and then spent two decades as an aerospace programmer at Pratt and Whitney aerospace company in Connecticut, and more years in real estate before becoming a restaurateur.

Before she came to America, Nisrine didn’t know how to cook, and wasn’t interested in learning.

“My mom sent with me a cookbook. I fought her. I said ‘I don’t want to cook,’ ” Nisrine said. Her mother slipped the book into her luggage anyway.

As newlyweds, Nisrine and Mahar Awkal didn’t cook much at home, preferring to eat out. But then Nisrine decided to make lunch for Mahar’s family. She used her mother’s cookbook to make the meal, and was surprised by the results.

“And after that lunch everyone complimented me, saying, ‘what is this feast?’ ” Nisrine said. “I didn’t mind it, and I was happy doing it.”

Over the years, she expanded her skill by doing more cooking for her family.

They couple fell into the restaurant business, however, by chance.

After leaving the aerospace industry in 2012, Mahar started his own engineering business. Simultaneously, he began buying and selling properties to earn extra money.

About five years ago, he purchased the building at 553 Main St. with the intention of reselling it.

“I ran across this property, and after I bought it, I thought that this would be a great place for something to eat, for mana’eesh,” Mahar said. After 17 years of marriage, he says, his wife had become “an awesome cook, especially when it came to lamb. Anything lamb, you won’t eat it better from anywhere else,” he said. “And in Mediterranean cuisine, lamb is very important.”

Before Taste of Lebanon opened, the nearest authentic Lebanese restaurant the couple could find to western Massachusetts was in New Jersey, they say. They traveled there a few times each month — “every nice Sunday, or whenever we needed groceries,” Nisrine said.

While Taste of Lebanon is now established, Mahar says, it took a awhile for it to catch on. Starting a restaurant from scratch, without experience in the business, posed a huge challenge.

“We’re not trained chefs. We struggled through it at the beginning to get the right taste. There’s been a lot of trial and error, and hard work,” he said. “It was a huge learning curve, no doubt about it, to get it to where we wanted it, and to get it to be a successful, sustaining business.”

Fine tuning

Over the years, Mahar has renovated the restaurant’s building a few times, and Nisrine has experimented with ingredients to get the menu just right. The dishes she chooses are based on her own tastes. In general, she gravitates toward strong herby flavors, heavy with seasoning.

“I’m a big Middle Eastern foodie — so it’s ‘what do I miss from back home, and how can I make it here?’ ” she said.

Nisrine recalls from her childhood a favorite street-side restaurant in Beirut, which “had the best French fry sandwich that everyone — from the prime minister to the person who didn’t have any money — would go to to have their sandwich.”

She has tried to recreate that experience at Taste of Lebanon, with menu options that cater both to those accustomed to American cuisine and others looking for more traditional options.

“Food is comfort, for everyone,” Nisrine said. “When you’re sad, you eat. When you’re on an emotional rollercoaster, you eat,” During Ramadan, “a good meal sums up the day, and makes you happy, because food makes you happy.”

Below are two of Nisrine Awkal’s recipes.

Hummus

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas or 1½ cups cooked chickpeas

¼ cup fresh lemon juice (1 large lemon)

¼ cup well-stirred tahini

1 small garlic clove, minced

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving

½ teaspoon ground cumin

Salt to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons water

Dash ground paprika, for serving

Mix all ingredients together in the food processor until it becomes soft and well blended. Serve hummus with a drizzle of olive oil and dash of paprika. Store homemade hummus in an airtight container and refrigerate up to one week.

Lentil Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1½ cups red lentils (yellow is fine)

½ cup short grain white rice (brown rice is fine)

1½ teaspoon ground cumin

Salt and pepper to taste

1 large carrot, chopped

8 cups vegetable broth (water is fine)

Chopped parsley, for garnish

Juice of one lemon

In a large pot, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions until they soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in the lentils, rice, cumin, salt and pepper, and cook for a few minutes.

Add the carrots and the vegetable stock, turn the heat to low and cook for 30 minutes until the rice and lentils are fluffy and fully cooked. Make sure to stir several times while cooking to prevent any lentils from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Using an immersion blender, pulse a few times to get the desired consistency. Add parsley, lemon juice and cook for 5 more minutes.

Serve immediately and enjoy!

How to connect

For more information about Taste of Lebanon, visit www.tasteoflebanonma.com, or call 413-363-0414. The restaurant, at 553 Main St. in West Springfield, is open Mondays through Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.

This story was corrected at 11:45 a.m. June 2 to reflect that Taste of Lebanon does not serve pork or any form of pork product.

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.